The life and legacy of Congressman John Lewis

July 23, 2020
  • advocacy
  • Federal relations
by William Rafael Gil, Director of Government Relations at AACRAO
 

To say that we lost an icon last week would be an understatement. 

Let me ask you, what were you doing at the age of 23?  Well, by the time that John Lewis was 23 he had addressed the same crowd as Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that historic day of August 28, 1963 , and had already been arrested over 40 times for peaceful demonstrations across the south. He had led peaceful sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville where he was spit on, food thrown at him, had condiments poured over his head and clothes and had been punched and bloodied for sitting in the white section of a restaurant. He was by then a well-established figure of the civil rights movement as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a confidant of MLK. He was the youngest speaker of the day and was the last living remaining speaker.

Then came Selma.  That fateful day. The day the American consciousness was awoken to the inequities transpiring in the south and the effect of the decades of Jim Crow laws. The realization that all men were not being given the opportunity to be part of the American motto that “All Men Are Created Equal”. The nation saw a young 25 year old John Lewis leading a peaceful march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a bridge named in honor of a man who was a confederate general and head of the Alabama Klu Klux Klan. They saw white police officers viciously attack and beat the demonstrators.  That day, 68 individuals ended up in the hospital. John Lewis’s skull was fractured and he bore scars on his head from this incident for the rest of his life.

America had never seen anything like this.  How can this be America? Outrage was swift.  Many stories of southern black oppression came to light. This led to the passage of the landmark 1965 Civil Rights Act.  Gone would be the days when an African-American would go to register to vote and --

  • Be asked:  How many bubbles in a bar of soap?
  • Be handed over a blank sheet of paper and be asked to read what was written. Then when they said nothing is there, be told that they don’t have the right to vote as they can’t read. 
  • Be asked how many judges are there in the state of Alabama. Then after answering the question correctly, be asked to name them all.

John Lewis was always a public servant. He became a member of the Atlanta City Council then a Member of Congress in 1987. Lewis was reelected 16 times, dropping below 70 percent of the vote in the general election only once in 1994. He ran unopposed in 1996, 2004, 2006, and 2008, and again in 2014 and 2018.

In 1988, Lewis introduced a bill to create a national African-American museum in Washington. The bill failed and for 15 years he continued to introduce it with each new congress, but each time it was blocked in the Senate.  Lewis continued to lead the effort and finally, with bipartisan support, in 2003 President George W. Bush signed the bill to establish the museum, with the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents to establish the location. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, located adjacent to the Washington Memorial, held its opening ceremony on September 25, 2016 fulfilling one of his life-long dreams.

 

I saw him often while walking the halls on Capitol Hill, both as a staffer and education advocate.  He saluted everyone that said hello to him.  Was always courteous. Always willing to take a picture with anyone that asked him to.  He was always the true public servant.

It’s notable that he will be the third African-American to Lie in State in the Capitol Rotunda, joining Rosa Parks and the recently deceased Rep. Elijah Cummings. Only 37 individuals in the history of our country have had this honor. According to the architect of the Capitol, “The Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol has been considered the most suitable place for the nation to pay final tribute to its most imminent citizens by having their remains lay in state." He will join the likes of Presidents John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Regan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, as well as Pierre L’Enfant, Henry Clay and Douglas MacArthur. Good company, to say the least.

I will be sharing this article with my 16 and 14 year old boys and, as a family, we will go down to the U.S. Capitol to pay our respects and honor his life’s work. We all need to know and remember his story and what he meant to this country. Never has someone of small stature projected such a large shadow.

John Lewis, born in Alabama in 1940 the son of sharecroppers, attended segregated public school, became a civil rights leader, organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, took part in the Freedom Rides, was a key speaker at the historic March on Washington, led one of the pivotal moments in the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama, and served this great country of our as a Member of Congress.  In the end, he became to be known as the “Conscience of America.” His actions and words will be revered for generation to come. 

For many years, Mr. Lewis would reenact the march across that bridge. This past weekend, he did his final crossing. How different it was than 55 years ago. He crossed this time with honor. Horse drawn carriage with his coffin draped in the American flag. With rose pedals placed in front of his carriage symbolizing the blood that has been spilled on that bridge. He was still sharing with us his story. Still teaching us about the inequities that we live with today.  About the need to speak up for the oppressed and disenfranchised. The need to continue the decades-long fight for equity for a “More Perfect Union,” as we are seeing across the country and world with the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

The torch has now been passed. It will now be up to a “New Generation of Americans” to continue to walk down the path that he did and prove our worth.   

Thank you for what you have taught us, Mr. Lewis. Thank you.